It was with alarm that I read this morning of James Cleverly's defence of his forthcoming visit to China. My alarm stemmed, not from his visit, but from the criticism from his own party that forced him to defend it. In a world that's becoming increasingly divided; where one country can, or may, invade another; where mutual animosity and mistrust threaten our very survival, how can high-level conversation with an incipient adversary be open to criticism? Not to be on speaking terms because we don't get on is a tactic with similar maturity to a playground deaf-out.
China's civil rights record is anything but admirable. Its effective genocide of Uyghurs is appalling. Its threats to Taiwan are globally unacceptable. And its exports are indispensible.
We're all happy to decry China, but we're not prepared to consider paying more for our clothes, technology, furniture, toys...
By becoming manufacturer to the world, China has quietly taken what at one point appeared an unassailable economic lead. The west's appetite for its output, and the country's nearness to self-sufficiency made it effectively unsanctionable should it fail to toe an "acceptable" line. More recently we see that this was built on shaky ground. Although previous predictions of its economic collapse have proved premature, this time it appears to be genuinely challenged. It's faced with unexpectedly low internal spending, slowing exports and a yawning imbalance between consumption and investment. An aging population, falling birth rate and, somewhat surprisingly, high youth unemployment all point to a difficult recovery.
China has a bellicose military. That's by no means unique, but it's worrying. Russia's sparse and outdated equipment, poor supply lines and outsourced manufacturing have conspired against success against Ukraine. China, by contrast, has world-class ordnance, an abundance of raw materials and a tempting prize across just fifty miles of water. If world relations fail, it has little to lose.
Winston Churchill said, "Meeting jaw to jaw is better than war", a comment later paraphrased by Harold Macmillan as "Jaw, jaw is better than war, war". Right now, China's recovery and future prosperity can be fuelled far more efficiently by trade and co-operation than it can by hostility. The world needs its exports as much as it needs a positive trade balance. With aligned aims and open communication, both can be achieved. And with a strong incentive to cooperate commercially, it's to be hoped that China can be persuaded towards better treatment of its population and its neighbours.
I wish Mr Cleverly well in his mission. Speaking to a perceived adversary is the best way of ensuring he doesn't become one.